Homophobic Bullying in Educational Institutions Undermines World Bank Equity Efforts

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Artwork by Ernest Katantazi Mukasa
The issue of inclusion was at the heart of the discussions around the World Bank's Education Sector Strategy 2020: Learning for All. One of the strategy’s main messages is that "there are indisputable benefits to ensuring that [...] disadvantaged populations have an equal opportunity to learn and excel in order for households, communities, and nations to prosper" and, therefore, the development of learning environments friendly to these populations is an essential part of our efforts to increase access to, and improve the quality of, schools worldwide. 

The Bank is focusing its efforts on girls, ethnic minorities and disabled children. However, it’s also important for the Bank to look at the extent to which bullying, and homophobic bullying in particular, is a cause of exclusion and at ways to address it.

From intimidation to physical assault, homophobic bullying is emerging as a serious issue for young learners worldwide and could affect more than 100 million students. A recent report, Inclusion Matters: The Foundation for Shared Prosperity , stated, “Much of what was once thought of as innocuous teasing is now recognized as bullying, a process that succeeds in excluding students with certain characteristics.” While bullying is frequently associated with discrimination based on ethnicity (as illustrated in the World Bank 2012 study, Toward an equal start: Closing the early learning gap for Roma children in Eastern Europe) or personal characteristics (e.g. appearance, disability as explored in many UNICEF reports), most bullying is actually sexual or gender-based, both in terms of the selection of victims, as well as the nature of the abuse according to the United Nations World Report on Violence against Children (2006).
Data Reveal Hostile Environments

In the United States, the 2011 National School Climate Survey of self-reported sexual minority students shows that schools nationwide are hostile environments for a distressing number of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) students, the overwhelming majority of whom hear homophobic remarks (including from teachers or other school staff).
Almost two-fifths report experiencing physical harassment at school in the past year because of their sexual orientation or gender expression. Similar rates are found in South America: Chile (68%), Guatemala (53%), Mexico (61%) and Peru (66 %). A study in India and Bangladesh found that 50% of homosexual men experienced harassment from students or teachers in school or college. Such high incidence of harassment and assault is exacerbated by school staff members, who rarely, if ever, intervene on behalf of LGBT students, according to the 2011 report.

These rates are much higher among transgender youth. In South Africa, lesbians and gays report experiencing high levels of verbal, sexual and physical abuse in school, mainly from other students, but also from teachers and school principals -- an assessment that matches findings of the World Bank Country Assessment on Youth Violence, Policy and Programmes in South Africa, published in June 2013. In a survey of those who had left school, 68% of gay men and 42% of lesbians reported that they had experienced hate speech at school, and 10% had experienced sexual violence. 

Homophobia and homophobic bullying undermine educational and learning opportunities. Victims of bullying tend to miss class, perform poorly in school and potentially drop out. In India and Bangladesh, a study amongst men who have sex with men revealed that a number of those who were victims of homophobic bullying in school had prematurely ended their education, which affected their subsequent employability.

Bullying also leads to higher incidences of depression, anxiety, social isolation and suicide, and several studies have shown a positive association between bullying and sexual violence. A multi-country study in Latin America reports that almost 15% of the Chilean respondents reported contemplating suicide. There is also evidence to show that young victims are more likely to abuse alcohol and drugs and are more likely to engage in high-risk sexual behavior.

The U.S. National School Climate Survey confirms the poorer health and educational outcomes of students who experienced high levels of in-school victimization based on their sexual orientation or gender expression.

A Threat to Human Rights

Fighting homophobia and homophobic bullying in school is not only the right thing to do. Far too often, responses to homophobic bullying have been triggered by tragedy. But bullying does, in fact, pose a significant threat to fundamental human rights, including the right to education. Looking back at the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and UNESCO’s Convention against Discrimination in Education, bullying also undermines all dimensions of a human rights-based approach to education: access, quality and respect within the learning environment, as reflected in the Millennium Development Goals and related Dakar Framework for Action and the Yogyakarta Principles.

In 2011, the United Nations Human Rights Council passed the first ever U.N. resolution to focus on human rights violations specifically in relation to sexual orientation and gender identity. It affirms the universality of human rights, and notes concern about acts of violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. In 2012, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged countries to address the “moral outrage, a grave violation of human rights” that is homophobia and to “take the necessary measures to protect people – all people – from violence and discrimination, including on grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity.”

Parallel to the work done within the U.N. system, countries have joined efforts to address human rights violations based on sexual orientation and gender identity within the framework of regional unions or communities of states (e.g., Council of Europe in 2010, Organization of American States in 2011). Some countries and economies have addressed the issue in their national constitution (e.g., South Africa) or issued targeted national policies (e.g., Brazil, Nepal, Hong Kong, Philippines). Other countries have drafted policies to address discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation and sexual identity specific to the education sector (e.g., El Salvador, Brazil).

The Right Tools

UNESCO has developed a set of tools following its Effective Policy and Practice to Address Homophobic Bullying in Educational Institutions event in Paris last May. These tools place a focus on designing curricula and teaching methods that can tackle bullying, and anti-LGBT bullying in particular, as well as crucial teacher training and support.

Similarly, the World Bank Institute (WBI) has developed an e-learning course titled Urban Crime and Violence Prevention, which allows participants to study theory on school-based violence prevention. Finally, the World Bank Education team developed RES-360° which helps to point to the assets and positive engagement in schools and communities that, if recognized and supported, can make national education programs more relevant and effective in contexts of adversity, an approach that could easily be applied to sexual minority youth in school. These initiatives could easily be embedded in World Bank education projects.

This issue is relevant to the World Bank’s efforts in education. As the Bank implements its Education Sector Strategy 2020: Learning for All, which particularly targets disadvantaged populations, let’s pause and reflect on these issues, keeping in mind the potential hetero-normative character of our activities. The Bank promises to promote equal access and improved quality of education for all children. This should include children discriminated against because of their sexual orientation and gender identity, perceived or real.  What will it take for our approach to be fully inclusive?
Follow the World Bank education team on Twitter: @WBG_Education


Caroline Vagneron

Senior Country Officer, Caribbean Country Management Unit, and Vice-President, GLOBE

Fabrice Houdart

Former Senior Country Officer, Middle East and North Africa, and President, GLOBE

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